The springboard for the Warren County High School baseball team on its way to a substate berth last year was a series victory over Coffee County in the District 6-AAA tournament. This year the Red Raiders ended the Pioneers’ season.
Coffee County swept a series against the Pioneers this week, winning 6-1 in Manchester Tuesday before finishing off Warren County 5-2 Wednesday at Patrick Ramsey Field.
The Pioneers, who finished 13-17 this season, were hoping to recapture the magic of last year’s postseason run, but the Red Raiders were up to the challenge this year. With one big inning at home Tuesday and capitalizing on multiple Pioneer errors Wednesday, Coffee County earned a spot in the District 6-AAA tournament finals and a regional berth.
The Pioneers only held one lead during the best-of-three series and it was in Tuesday’s game at Coffee County. Warren County struck first in the series, getting an RBI single from senior Kyle Rutledge in the second inning to score Alex Hillis. It would prove to be the only run for Warren County in the first 13 innings of the series against Coffee County as the Red Raider pitchers silenced the Pioneer bats.
Coffee County stormed back in the fourth inning, scoring all its runs to win the first game. After being held without a hit in the first three innings, Peyton Meeker, who has been a thorn in the Pioneers’ side for several years, started the six-run rally for the Red Raiders with a lead-off double.
Meeker scored soon after on an RBI single which started a string of seven straight Red Raiders reaching base off Pioneer starter Ryan Jennings. Jennings loaded the bases with a walk, but had a chance to get out of the inning when he induced a groundball to Logan Underhill.
The normally sure-handed shortstop had a costly error though, leading to Coffee County taking a 2-1 lead. A two-run single by Trace Friedlein on the next pitch made it 4-1 and Kyle Douglas capped the rally with a two-run double.
The Pioneers couldn’t mount much offense against Meeker, who went the distance to earn the victory. Two of the Pioneers’ six hits were in the seventh inning when Daulton Foster and Underhill each singled, but Park Hilliard grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the rally. Chayse Frye and Jon Reed added hits in the loss.
Warren County was hoping to bounce back Wednesday with a win to force a Game 3 in the series, but the team got off to a slow start on its home field.
Douglas and Meeker started the game with back-to-back hits off Pioneer sophomore starter Tristan Smith, then the first of many blunders by Warren County led to Coffee County scoring two runs.
After a sacrifice bunt put both Red Raiders in scoring position, Smith threw a pitch that got past Lee Carden at catcher. Douglas and Smith sprinted toward home and Carden tried to toss back to his pitcher. Instead, the ball went past Smith and into the infield and Meeker was able to fly around and score as well.
The Pioneers, who out hit Coffee County nine to eight in Wednesday’s game, tried to get a run back in the first inning on a delayed double steal by Carden and Hillis, but the inning ended with Carden being thrown out at home.
Meeker helped the Red Raiders go up 3-0 in the third inning when he started the frame with a single and came in to score on a sacrifice fly. Coffee County was able to keep the Pioneers at bay as Douglas cruised through six innings without allowing a run.
More throwing errors gave the Red Raiders an insurmountable lead in the sixth inning. Coffee County had a runner at second with one out when David Lee, who entered in relief for Smith, got a batter swinging on strike three.
The ball trickled away from Carden though, giving the batter a chance to take first. While the batter raced to first, the runner on second started toward third and caught Carden’s attention. Carden tried to throw to Reed for the out, but the ball went into left field for an easy run.
Another mistake, where the Pioneers were caught trying to throw the ball back in the infield only to drop the ball, allowed Coffee County plate its fifth run.
Warren County came to the plate in the seventh inning trailing 5-0 and knowing the season was three outs away from ending. Douglas got a quick out, but surrendered a hit to Reed to give the Pioneers hope.
The chance nearly faded when Foster hit what looked to be a tailor-made, double-play ball, but the speedy senior wasn’t going to let his career end. Foster beat the throw to first after Reed was forced out at second.
Down to their last out, the Pioneers got new life when Underhill doubled into the right-field gap to put two runners in scoring position. Hilliard followed with a double to right field, scoring Foster and Underhill to break the team’s 11-inning scoreless streak and make it 5-2.
With work left to be done, Carden and Hillis each drew walks to load the bases and bring the winning run to the plate in the form of Frye. Having the sophomore who hit a walk-off grand slam earlier this season against Smith County seemed like a good omen, but the first baseman couldn’t keep the rally going.
Frye tried to check his swing on a 1-2 count, but went around too far on a pitch outside. The ball bounced away from the Coffee County catcher momentarily, but he recovered and stepped on home to end the game.
Smith took the loss in the final game, pitching into the sixth inning and allowing four runs on six hits while striking out two. Lee allowed one run on one hit while striking out two in his final outing as a Pioneer. Rutledge, also playing his final game, got the last out on the mound for Warren County.
Hillis and Mitchell Steiner, both seniors, led the team with two hits Wednesday. Jeremiah Lance, the team’s sixth senior, entered the game on defense in the seventh inning.
Warren County will try to make a return to regionals next season with several starters returning, including Underhill, Hilliard, Carden, Reed, Frye and Smith.